A student and a teacher take part in the YMCA “Y-Achievers” program, which helps shore up kids’ literacy skills.

Learning happens even in July at Belgrade’s Saddle Peak Elementary School, where 22 youngsters who will enter second or third grade this fall are spending their days immersed in the Gallatin Valley YMCA’s “Y-Achievers” program.

This is the fourth year that the Y, in partnership with United Way and the Belgrade School District, has offered the nationwide program here, according to Andrea Stevenson, CEO of the Gallatin Valley YMCA.

Y-Achievers is designed for children reading below grade level, and its purpose is to prevent the typical “summer slide,” or learning loss, that many kids experience during summer vacation, as well as to increase their odds for further academic success.

“Third grade marks the transition from learning to read to reading to learn,” Stevenson said. “If we can do something to help, we can change a life.”

The success of the program, which emphasizes phonics, writing, reading to oneself and guided word work, is “impressive,” Stevenson adds.

“Every year, we’ve seen incredible progress in literacy between our pre-tests and post-tests,’ Stevenson says. “The average gain in the summer is one to three months of progress in six weeks.”

Y-Achievers can boast more than just academic success, too. Parents sign a contract promising to support their children throughout the duration of the program by ensuring attendance, encouraging reading at home, and participating in the camp’s family events. They typically report that their kids are more confident, reading more, and enjoying closer relationships by the time camp has ended, says Sierra Ely, a Bozeman kindergarten teacher who is in charge of the Belgrade program this summer.

As the pupils trickled into Saddle Peak Wednesday morning, they helped themselves to breakfast provided by the Gallatin Valley Food Bank, which delivers two meals and snacks per day throughout the duration of the camp. The menus are designed to enhance the nutritional education information taught to the children throughout the six weeks.

As they enjoyed their breakfast, the kids were given beads awarded for behavior the day before that exemplified the characteristics of Honesty, Respect, Responsibility and Caring. They talked about this week’s field trip to Montana Grizzly Encounter and Tuesday evening’s “Fun Night” for families, during which they enjoyed pizza provided by Mackenzie River Pizza and played board games with parents and siblings.

They then split into two classes and 

headed to classrooms for their morning academic session, which was led by certified teachers.

While Y-Achievers is definitely geared toward academics, “it doesn’t feel like school, and that’s important,” Stevenson says. Regular physical activity and recesses are built into each day’s schedule, and lessons are camouflaged in fun. Two and half weeks in, Belgrade’s kids already have graduated from the “Ooey Gooey Awesomeness” (science) unit, and “Old MacDonald Had a Camp” session, during which many of them learned for the first time what a swan is.

They also had the chance to interact with goats at Grizzly Encounter, and have visited the Bozeman Children’s Museum and Belgrade and Bozeman libraries. Every Friday, they join the Bozeman Y-Achievers kids for a fun session in the water at the Bozeman Swim Center.

“They are learning and they are reading, but they’re still having a blast and enjoying summer,” Ely says. “For a lot of these kiddos, the enrichment field trips and swimming are the only opportunities they have to do these things.”

That’s in part because many of the program participants come from low-income families or difficult circumstances, and it’s also why the Y ensures that all children accepted into the camp are able to attend. Stevenson said it costs $32,000 to offer the summer program in Belgrade, and another $32,000 in Bozeman. The Belgrade School District contributes $5,000 to the Saddle Peak camp, and further supports the program by allowing use of its facilities and equipment. Parents are asked to pay $100 for the six-week session, but about a third of the Belgrade kids are attending on scholarship. United Way and private donors provide the rest of the funding.

Ely, who has a passion for working with children facing challenges, says that in addition to academics, the program helps the children build social skills and confidence. They make friends, bond with their teachers, and are happy to be there.

“It’s fun to see their excitement,” Ely said. “The hardest part of the end of the day is they don’t want to go home.”